Tag Archives: mythology

Suvarnamaccha

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There is a limestone isthmus between two tiny islands – Rameshwaram and Mannar – that once connected the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka, by foot and for half a century even by rail. No bridge, made by nature, by people or by their machines, has been able to remain standing, holding these two points together. Cyclones, such as the 1964 one which turned Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu’s far south into the ghost town and another one dated to 1480, have overwhelmed every attempt with a watery erasure.

There happen to be dugongs in these waters – those gentle, sea grass-grazing creatures which many believe led centuries of cabin-fevered seafarers to experience visions of mermaids.

Many Ramayanas recount the episode in which Hanuman and his army of vanaras, men and god-kings (and at least one squirrel) build a bridge of boulders to Lanka, and some believe that this isthmus was the result of this endeavour. In certain Ramayanas, particularly those that come from South East Asia, the marauding army finds its constructions sabotaged. Each day, the bridge extends through their labour, cutting further into the sea and closer to the other side. Each night, it retracts. Hanuman watches closely and discovers a bevy of mermaids removing the boulders by darkness, working as efficiently as his own legion. They are led by Suvarnamaccha, whose name contains the words for “gold” and “fish”. She is impossible to look away from – everything about her, from her commanding presence to the alluring curve of her caudal fin, dazzles. It is clear that this waters are her dominion. She refuses to engage with him. Until she does.

What begins as a bureaucratic quarrel becomes love, or something like it. Suvarnamaccha notices how gorgeous the opponent is; Hanuman registers her desire, and with it, his own. There is a wildness in both of them, humming within their human consciousness, and which they each recognize in the other. Suvarnamaccha calls her army of fish-tailed women away from their task. The bridge is completed, and prepares to bear the weight of Hanuman’s legion as they cross the sea to arrive in Lanka, in search of a kidnapped queen. When Hanuman asks her why the mermaids had kept dismantling the bridge, Suvarnamaccha tells him that she is a daughter of Ravana, the kidnapper king who has more faces than a hall of mirrors.

This brings me to an interlude, and to a merging of tellings. This is what I imagine Suvarnamaccha did for her sister, in the renditions of the epic in which incest becomes the knotty underside of the embroidery. That sister (this is a kinship that is not necessarily consanguine) was the one whose mother was Ravana’s chief consort Mandodari. I imagine Mandodari somewhere in the innermost chambers of her palace, giving birth as silently and secretly as she can. She had meant to end her life when she consumed the grail of milk-mingled blood from a chthonic sacrifice; instead, she had become pregnant with a progeny cursed to bring about the king’s downfall. I imagine Mandodari walking alone to the shore, where she sets her newborn into a lined basket and lowers it into the water with a prayer. There is nowhere on this island that her daughter will not be found, and killed. The baby-bearing basket is swept into the currents. I imagine Suvarnamaccha coaxing the tides with her tail, gently leading her sister to a land where she will be discovered, and named by the king who would become her father as Sita.

Let us return to Suvarnamaccha who becomes pregnant too, later in this mythos, entwined underwater with the charming and devastating Hanuman.

Did he love her? When we consider how myths have been recorded across millennia, it becomes clear how rarely the question gets asked. And how much less frequently the answer has mattered to those who tell this story, or many like it.

In the South East Asian Ramayanas, Thai and Khmer among them, Hanuman is far from the celibate that most Hindu traditions hold him to be (but there is a Suvarchala, whose mother was shadow and father was sun, with whom he had a sexless marriage, as enshrined in a temple in Telangana). Jain beliefs also name among his wives Anangakusuma and Lankasundari.

His lovers and spouses are numerous, and he has at least one other child who is part-piscine, though born through stranger means. Upon burning Lanka – some time after leaving Suvarnamaccha – Hanuman plunges into the sea to cool his own flaming body, and a drop of his perspiration falls into the mouth of an unnamed makara, a mythical sea creature that itself is part-aquatic and part-terrestrial. Makardhwaja is cut out of his mother’s belly when she is caught by fishers in Patala-lokam, the netherworld, and becomes a warrior.

In the separate stories of Macchanu and Makardhwaja, they both meet their father – they both battle him, knowing or not knowing their lineage but bound by loyalties far more meaningful than blood. But what becomes of their mothers, or the memory of them? Does Makardhwaja ever learn his mother’s name, the one who became entangled in a net and was sliced open for meat? Does Macchanu ever visit the gulf of his birth, to meet Suvarnamaccha somewhere in its depths and swirl with her in her realm? Surely she is there, in some configuration of a story made of water, and therefore unable to be razed by fire: golden-tailed and ageless, the sunlight glinting on her scales when she surfaces from time to time out of the sea that carries the sky’s reflection, and peers up at the clouds to see if she can catch a glimpse of another tail – simian, strong and ever so slightly charred.

An edited version was published in The Indian Express’ Diwali 2019 special edition.

The Venus Flytrap: Fig Tree Tales

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Some things call to you, and other things call to many, but not you. Firmly in the latter category for me is the excitement around the ascension of the statue of Athi Varadar of Kanchipuram. Except for one precious detail: the statue, immersed in a water tank and displayed for public worship only once every forty years, is made of the wood of the athimaram, the ficus racemosa. This tree is both the mythical udumbara of the Pali texts, and the humble cluster fig (I believe we mostly eat the ficus carica, the common fig).

The many species of the fig tree have a cherished place in the stories of myriad traditions. The wood in which this avatar of Vishnu takes embodiment is connected to the sacred Bodhi beneath which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, the heart-shaped leaf of the pipal through which the Kutia Kondh goddess Nirantali created the first human tongue, the wild fig tree in whose roots was found the cradle containing the wolf-suckled babies Romulus and Remus (one of whom, having killed his brother, would establish Rome), the sycamore fig which was the abode of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and numerous ‘world trees’ across cultures. The banyan too, that vast and intricately thriving repository of mystery and comfort, is a kind of ficus. Fig trees are special – givers of shade, stories, statues and, not least, sweetness.

Having tasted the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves into girdles to cover their bodies – the first undergarments (the Persian god Mithra too dressed himself with them). This Biblical parable gave rise to the literal use of the fig leaf motif in plaster casts commissioned by some museums to hide the genitals of sculptures when dignitaries visited, such as when Queen Victoria viewed a replica of Michelangelo’s David in London. Certain Popes also had fig leaf coverings made for works in the Vatican. Coincidentally, or not, the Greek god of debauchery, Dionysus, was also associated with fig trees, and one of his myths involves him making a phallus of fig wood for a secret rite.

It wasn’t until this contemplation that I realised why there’s something about the fig fruit that has always confused and seduced me. It’s because it plays a trick on the eye: green-skinned in the hue of a guava or pear, yet tender-fleshed in a way neither of those fruits are. I’m surprised every time by the lusciousness that’s inside that lacklustre rind. Perhaps this was that forbidden fruit, ripe with revelation.

Who knows who or what will still be standing in another forty years, in time for Athi Varadar’s next scheduled rise from his silver-casketed immersion. But fig trees have long lifespans – the fruit-bearing common ones can live up to two centuries, and folklore contends that banyans survive to a venerable ancientness. The elation around the idol’s current advent will lead to at least one lasting good: the Kanchipuram administration has committed to planting 40,000 fig saplings across the district in honour of the occasion. May those trees live to watch many tales, and keep safe many tellings under the aegis of their canopies.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 25th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Avni And Other Tigers

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There is one particular detail of the killing of Avni, the tiger, in Maharashtra last week that I keep circling back to. She was lured using a trail of tiger urine mixed with a men’s perfume, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. The scent contains synthetics that mimic civetone, which is secreted in the perineal glands of civets, and has similar effects to musk, another animal-based perfumery ingredient. Tigers find civetone irresistible; it was deployed here because earlier experiments showed that they wanted to roll themselves all over where it was sprayed, rubbing their faces into it and sniffing with visible pleasure. Essentially, Avni was lured to her death through aphrodisiac pheromones.

Avni was a “man eater”, that archaic word so colonialist in its resonance, which keeps being used in reports about her killing. It’s a word from a worldview that’s clear in its division between animal and human, but specifically Man (colonial order wasn’t the only thing built into the language). As though women or water buffaloes don’t get eaten too (both equally inequal in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man). The dictionary suggests that it was first used for human cannibalism (more colonial inference), later becoming used to describe animals. “Man eater” is also still in common parlance as an innuendo, used to caricaturise women who are unapologetically desirous. The fear of the desirous woman is such that she is likened to a creature that kills to devour.

But for cultures that lived or live alongside the tiger, traditionally, fear is mixed not with bloodthirst but with reverence. In the Sundarbans, the tiger deity Dakshin Rai is appeased and asked for protection, while simultaneously expected to be mercurial and voracious. In Karnataka, the tiger god is Hulideva. Naga legend holds that the first tiger, first human and first spirit all shared the same mother. Among Warli and Koli people, Waghya (meaning “tiger”) is one of the principal deities, and Waghoba is the deity of the forest at large in Maharashtra.

It bears noting that it was at the behest of the people living in the Pandharkawada divisional forest, where an estimated 13 people were killed due to tiger attacks, that Avni was shot. While the lack of adequate tranquiliser usage, the decision to kill rather than capture, and the uncertain fate of her two cubs are all worthy of questioning, that she was a threat was something that we must accept. Otherwise, what difference is there between we who live in cities and have the luxury of choosing animal-friendly diets we don’t forage for ourselves, and those who colonised centuries ago and decided that the beasts of our lands were for sport hunting and that some human lives were less valuable than their own?

To return to man-eaters and musky pheromones, there’s another possibility as to why the scent attracted Avni. It’s heartbreaking to think that she died hoping that a mate was rambling in the vicinity. Perhaps what she thought she sensed was a competitor, another tiger on the prowl for the same prey. And so she died ferocious, protective – double-edged, just the way the tiger is understood by those who know it most.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Neem Tree For A Neighbour

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My closest neighbour is a neem tree, and she rests her lovely-leafed branches on the glass of the window by my reading nook. This is not a forever home, but for the little while that I’m here, it’s where I plan to spend many hours. Sun slanting on the greenery, on my skin, on the pages I’m holding. This, to me, is luxury. And have you noticed over the past year or so how kuyil songs are more frequently heard around the city centre? I hear them all day now. Something is shifting towards kindness and vitality, in a way that maybe will touch us too in our conurbations, our attempted civilisations, our many cages. I hope it touches me in mine, and I strive to reach for it every day – something resembling belonging. Here in this nook, I watch as squirrels run up the branches and along the windowsill. Ours is, I think, an undemanding co-existence.

Of course, I know they are rodents. And certainly, I know that prettiness alone shouldn’t be trusted. After all, one of the most famous squirrels ever (not counting the sabre-toothed Scrat in the Ice Age films) is the vicious Ratatosk, who scampers up and down the span of the great world tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. He tells the dragon chewing at the roots what the eagle in the high branches allegedly said; and then passes another falsehood to the eagle.

But I am lucky: I speak to my neighbour the neem tree directly. And sometimes in the evenings I go downstairs and circle her, caressing low-hanging leaves with my fingertips. I have a feeling that she is a tree who is good at absorbing tears.

I don’t need a squirrel messenger. In fact, I don’t need anything from the squirrels, and so I prefer another tale about them: about how the Indian palm squirrel got its stripes after being gently stroked by Rama in a gesture of gratitude. It’s a small story about tenderness within a large story mostly about the ego, and more than the story itself, it’s the memory of my father’s narration of it in my childhood that I cherish.

I was intrigued to learn that North American cookbooks, including the iconic Joy of Cooking, featured squirrel meat even up to the cusp of the millennium, with dishes such as Brunswick stew and fricassee. As recently as a decade ago, the UK’s The Guardiancalled it the “ultimate ethical” meat, as a free-range, low-fat, locally-sourced and apparently quite tasty alternate to other kinds. Locavores in the West aside, species of squirrels both small (such as the orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel) and large (such as the Malayan giant squirrel) are traditionally eaten in different parts of India. Perhaps this mix of inspirations was what made London-based chef Rakesh Nair come up with a “Rajasthani spiced grey squirrel” for Jamie Oliver.

I’m never eating these squirrels at my window, of course. They give me so much more food for thought than they could give my stomach nourishment. “Hello Aniloo,” I coo (this is my name for all squirrels). “Are you visiting me – or am I visiting you?”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Goddess Menstruates

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While so many are galvanizing resources for flood-wrecked Kerala, Kodagu and other parts of South India, a leisurely lot have been spending time and energy spreading the information that the natural disaster (even if not, technically speaking, a national disaster) has been because of the wrath of God. Specifically, that the Supreme Court case on permitting women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala has invited the deluge.

For some reason, this often gets conflated into “menstruating women”, as though the Supreme Court has specifically opened the temple to women who are literally having their periods. It’s worth remembering that the exclusion of women was brought into law by the Kerala High Court only in 1991. Prior to that, women generally did not participate due to tradition, enforced by conditioning but not by law.

Does Ayyappan forbid the presence of fertile women? That isn’t for me to decide. But the misnomer “menstruating women” calls to mind exactly that image, and myths around the same. We could begin with Parvati of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, one of the worst hit in these floods. Originally built in 300 AD, the clothes of the goddess here are checked every morning for blood stains. When they are found, the idol is shifted to private quarters for the duration of her period, during which the temple also remains closed. Menstrual seclusion is a part of this temple’s ethos, as it is in most (but not all, though of this I will not speak indiscreetly). Can ritual observation be read as honouring the feminine body, or only as disdain?

Cultures around the world have traditionally regarded menstrual blood as either polluting, or possessing a power that can be used for any means and therefore best avoided, an idea so nuanced that it unfortunately creates taboos. The elaborate and beautiful, though equally violent, Mayan myth of the lunar goddess Po is one example: discovered by her father to have taken a lover, Po is killed, her menstrual blood stored in thirteen jars that contain both evil and healing. The last one contains her essence, and she is reborn.

Myths of unequivocal celebration are rare, like the one about the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, who created humankind through loam and her own menses. Surely, in the rich folklores of the world, far more tales have been created: whispered in menstrual huts, at the thresholds of forbidden kitchens, in factories where women without union benefits pack unaffordable hygiene products for other women. There are no experiences that don’t find themselves woven into stories.

Which brings us finally to the most legendary of them all: the temple in Guwahati where Kamakhya is worshipped in the form of a stone yoni that is kept perennially moistened by a natural spring. Each year, she is said to menstruate during the Ambubachi Mela, coinciding with the June monsoon. Is this celebration? Of the feminine principle, certainly. But I’ve still not heard even one menstruation story that’s simply about normalization. “And then the goddess paused for a while, and drank some tea, and pondered the merits of banana fibre pads over moon cups…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 23rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Sons Of Mars

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Mars retrograde is supposed to bring the men back. The planet of ambition, sex and war – at least as per astrologers and storytellers – had backtracked not even three days when my text messages started showing signs of an accurate forecast. A retrograde is when a planet appears to be moving backwards in the sky, and its astrological effects are said to be a little askew. Seeing these effects in my inbox, I did not reply. Call it the thwarted drive of a weakened Mars or the long-term strategy of a sensible warrior. It may not be wise to pay heed to astrology, but that returning men rarely warrant replies is a permanently valid prophecy.

It so happens that Mars is also astronomically important this month, and its proximity to Earth at the end of July means its visibility increases for sky-watchers. It also has a perihelic opposition, when it’s at its closest to the sun while also directly opposite to Earth. And at the end of the month, Mars will come closer to us than it has in a decade and a half, and this will almost coincide with the longest lunar eclipse of the century.

Our planet experiences lunar eclipses a few times a year, but Mars has them almost every night, and in totality. Its two moons – Phobos and Deimos – are relatively small and frequently covered by the sun. There cannot be any total solar eclipses on that planet. Mars is the Roman name for the Greek deity Ares, god of war. His sons were Phobos and Deimos. Phobos – named for fear, from which we get the word “phobia”. Deimos – named for dread, especially before battle. The young twins accompanied their father into war. Fearsome to behold, Deimos was lion-headed, and his brother had a fiery gaze.

I looked at images of Phobos and Deimos and felt a strange and loyal smugness. They are not as pretty as our moon, who despite all her craters and caprices is complete in herself. They are misshapen, and strike me as being untrustworthy. Phobos is believed to actually be a pile of rubble with a thin crust, and is known to be collapsing internally, torn up over its tidal interactions with Mars.

The mother of the twins was Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love, and because of this they were also the gods of the fear of loss. Not loss itself but the fear of it. Perhaps Dread and Fear include the anxiety of sitting by an ailing loved one, or the disquiet of realising someone does not intend to call you back.

Our moon has no scientific name. She is The Moon. And surely among her many prestiges she is also the governess of loss – not the one who controls or creates it, but the one who looks over those who experience it. We are mostly made of water, more receptive to the lunar pull than to the retrogression of a distant planet.

So Mars is in retrograde and maybe the men will try to come back, but even with the occlusion of an eclipse, they should know they’re treading in a selene-centric galaxy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Kilaeua and Kahlo

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It’s said there’s “nothing special” about the tiny green stones that appear to be raining from the sky in Hawaii – fragments of the mineral olivine, spewed in the lava from the ferociously erupting Kilaeua volcano. Even peridot, the gemstone that can be found in the mineral, isn’t considered precious because it’s relatively common. But it looks like it’d be beautiful cascading from an ear, and be comforting to hold, like any quartz. Most of all, looking at pictures of olivine, I wonder how it might catch the light. Why is it not special?

Kilaeua is the goddess Pele, who created the Hawaiian archipelago, and I’d seen her picture too. This deity of fire makes her presence known on camera, and there are several images of a womanly form emerging from the point where lava spills into the ocean, or rising in the glow from a crater. Sometimes, a face in seen in plumes, or the lava takes the shape of other body parts.

I listened to the musician Kekuhi Kealiʻikanakaʻole speaking about Pele and her present activity on Hawaii Public Radio. She says that beyond all human imagery, Pele is quintessentially the magma itself.

Kekuhi describes a profound relationship with “the Tutu”, as Pele is respectfully known, deeply connected to her body. The word she uses is “enlivening”. Her body and mind are enlivened by volcanic activity. This is more than intuition – it is connection. She expects Pele to shake, rather than predicts this. Beautifully, she tells her listeners that happening before their eyes are the kinds of events that inspired the myths themselves. “Write it down!” she insists, for they will become new songs, new dances and new chants.

Some nights ago I woke with a melancholy that made me obsess over a quote widely attributed to Frida Kahlo. I searched through a book of her letters and couldn’t find it. Then, I discovered those words weren’t hers at all, but the Mexican poet Estefania Mitre’s. Here they are: “You deserve a love that wants you dishevelled, with everything and all the reasons that wake you up in haste, with everything and the demons that won’t let you sleep. You deserve a love that makes you feel secure, able to devour the world when it walks with you, that feels your embraces are perfect for its skin. You deserve a love that wants to dance with you, that goes to paradise every time it looks into your eyes and never gets tired of studying your expressions. You deserve a love that listens when you sing, that supports your ridiculousness, that respects your freedom; that accompanies you when you fly and isn’t afraid to fall. You deserve a love that takes away the lies and brings you illusion, coffee, and poetry.”

Were the words less powerful to me because Frida’s force of character was not behind them? For a moment, yes. But then would olivine, barely a gemstone, also be less pretty if it wasn’t a symbol of Pele’s grace? That night, I let those often-stolen words comfort me, for they too felt like a small crystal on the skin, they too caught the light.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 21st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

~ THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD ~

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Sita in a forest, loved and left behind, looks towards the night sky and sees Lucifer’s fall from grace. Inanna enters the underworld, holding her heart before her like a torch. It is not easy to bear the weight of light; wilderness takes time to turn into sanctuary. These are poems of exile, resurrection, impossible love, lasting redemption – and above all else, the many meanings of grace.

“Sharanya’s poems are, in her own phrase, a form of phosphorescence – glowing in darkness, simmering with wonder, mythic in resonance, boldly embodied, hence surprisingly spiritful, even spiritual in the finest sense of the word. They are also skeptical and reflective, tempering and enhancing the glowing flame. Riptides of Tamil hide beneath or within her honed English, for those who can hear and see.” – David Shulman.

Selected reviews, interviews & articles

“Sharanya Manivannan’s poems in The Altar of the Only World are resplendent, locking you up in their hallucinatory visions.” – Karthik Shankar, OPEN Magazine

“This is a collection that you would want to own, for its exquisite imagery, for the raw passion, and most of all for the deep emotions it will evoke in you.” – The Greedy Reader

“It doesn’t matter in the end who abandoned you – it only matters who you make of yourself in the afterlife of that love.” – Scroll (interview with Nikita Deshpande)

“You can see Venus in the sky with the naked eye some nights of the year, and she sometimes hovers by her lover, Mars, and our grandmother, the moon. There’s the traditional reading of the planet as the goddess of love, but you chase her a little more and you are unsurprised to find that she is also the goddess of war, as Inanna. And exiled from heaven, as Lucifer the morning star is. I love that complexity because it gave me so much for my poetry. I love that what has survived through the ages is a less austere kind of imagination, one that embraced the contradictory. We need more of that today.” New, Fractured Light (interview)

“Heartbreak is also a palimpsest. Each time afterwards, one retraces that journey. It’s a shadow under the fresh pain. It doesn’t always sting or throb, but it’s there.” The Wire (interview with Shreya Ila Anasuya)

“The book was born in the chthonic, and in the search for light in all its meanings — as illumination, as blitheness, as clarity. Lucifer, whose name means light-bearer, brought the light, as did Inanna, who went to the underworld to confront her shadow. What I discovered was that these were not contradictions. Stars fill this book. The sun is among them, and the one Sita thinks of often, having married into, and been banished from its dynasty. Fire, too, is a repeated motif. We have walked through fire, and the myths help us live with trauma, to accept the knowledge of how we became salamandrine.” The Hindu Business Line (interview with Urvashi Bahuguna)

 

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The Venus Flytrap: Look At The Sky

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An antlered creature is trapped between two men – we know they are men not only from their smooth torsos but also from the penises that dangle between their legs, indicating their nakedness. The man on the right carries a spear above his head; the other holds a bow drawn taut. In the distance is a smaller creature, in its pose an air of dejection. Above them all are two objects – one of them only partially drawn, or partially obscured. Bulls-eyes from which lines radiate. Two suns? A sun and a supernova, is what experts believe. The rock carving that depicts this scene has just been discovered in the Burzahom archaeological site in Kashmir. The findings suggest that this may be the oldest surviving human artwork inspired by a supernova sighting.

These findings appear in a paper in the Indian Journal of the History of Science, and only get more marvellous. Hrishikesh Joglekar, M N Vahia and Aniket Sule posit a theory that’s inclusive of both archaeology and astronomy. They date the rock carving to 4,500 years ago based on a correlation with a supernova remnant, HB9. And they offer this possibility: the hunt recorded in the carving could have been celestial, for the map of the sky at the same time of the supernova’s explosion contained a remarkably similar picture. The antlered creature is the constellation Taurus, the hunter with the bow and arrow is Orion, and to the right are a hunter formed from stars of the constellation Cetus and the second animal – apparently a canine – from the constellations Andromeda and Pegasus.

Who do we marvel more: the scientists of today who put all of this together, or the woman or man who chiselled what they saw take place in the heavens one night in the Kashmir Valley so long ago?

And I wonder what it was that artist thought as she observed this. What – or who – were the stars to her? What did she believe she was seeing?

There are always stories and there are always theories. Here’s another possibility from science: morning sunlight reflecting on ice crystals, creating the optical illusion of a second sun. And then there are myths. In the Cheonjiwang Bonpuri of Korean shamans, two suns and two moons are created to appease the Rooster Emperors. The Atyal people of Taiwan tell a story about how a hunter had to shoot down one of the two suns in the sky because people could neither sleep nor grow millets. The Mayans had many stories of rivalling suns and moons. And then there’s mythical science: Erik Aspaug’s Big Splat Theory that suggests that our moon was a fragment spun from a newborn earth’s collision with another planet, and that it maybe even had a twin, which the scientist Corey S. Powell poetically names Endymion, lover of the moon goddess Selene.

Some years ago, the graffitied words “regarde le ciel” appeared around Paris. Look at the sky. Imagine if some of this graffiti survived, and sentient beings millennia from now discovered it. What would they think we saw? Would they also know that, too often, we didn’t remember to seek at all?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 11th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Sitas, Many Ramas

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The lines flow like waves along their skin, or radiating circles. The same word over and over again in faded-tattoo green in the Gondi language, in Devanagari script. Ram Ram Ram. I came across the Ramnami people of Chhattisgarh in a stunning feature written and photographed by Joydip Mitra for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Ramnamis are descended from Dalits who rejected the caste system, and calligraphed the sacred onto their skin. Only the elderly write their devotion onto their bodies now. In the photographs, only their eyes and lips carry no ink, and around their shoulders they wear fabrics that repeat the name they hold holy. Ram Ram Ram.

“Ram is written all over us,” says Pitambar Ram of Raigarh to the journalist. “So, you see, we are the Ramayana.”

There are so many, you know. My newest book of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, began with someone who held this name holy too. It was always Sita, only Sita, for me, and this too is a long tradition – found in folksongs and variations, the way a story becomes a new one each time it is told. It began with her weeping in the forest – there is a Sanskrit word for that, “aranyarodhan”, even though the Sita I got to know was not a Sanskrit version at all. Instead, she is mothered by Mandodari, who drinks a grail of sacrificial blood and sets her miraculous, curse-born child to drift away on the water like Moses or Karna. Instead of being the daughter of the earth, she is the earth itself. As well as a Persian angel, exiled from heaven because of too much devotion, and a goddess of love and war who enters the underworld to confront her shadow, who in the ancient Sumerian texts that describe her looks strikingly like the lion-headed Pratyangira Devi.

When I started to write The Altar of the Only World, nine years ago, it felt like it was a safer world to tell stories in. And a safer world to tell the truth in, too. Not so anymore. This casts an edge over all the usual trepidation before a book release. And then there’s the ambivalence of letting go of something that has been incomplete in you for so long that you can hardly imagine it fulfilled.

A year and a half ago, I was on a flight that made a missed approach. Like other frightening things, I had never known such a thing existed until it happened. In a terrible storm, the plane almost touched the tarmac and then suddenly swooped upwards again into the roiling thunderclouds. We circled the airport for many long minutes, not a word from the captain or crew for a while. The cabin remained quiet, and there was applause when we finally landed. I remember feeling aware, not afraid. This is how letting a piece of long labour into the world feels like: you cannot tell if it will make it or not, but you must suspend absolutely the idea that you can control what happens. And given the vagaries of the journey, be grateful for touchdown at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Sauptik by Amruta Patil

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On a cremation ground somewhere in the present, the past or perhaps even the future, Ashwatthama of the wounds that never heal tells the story of all he saw in the great war to his companions, the crackers of skulls and bearers of corpses. As far as Mahabharata retellings go, Amruta Patil’s has a knack for choosing sutradhars, or narrators – in Adi Parva, the first volume in this graphic diptych, it was the river Ganga. In Sauptik, the concluding volume, the thread is passed to as different a raconteur as possible: unlike a fabled river, the mass-murdering immortal Ashwatthama is not as easy to redeem into elegance of any kind.

This befits the book perfectly, for the tale Patil spins is one of ignominy, betrayal and repeated falls from grace. Throughout, Ashwatthama attempts a preacher position, albeit sitting beside pyres, pus leaking from his forehead. He is immortal but this is ironically his fatal flaw: he is too central a cautionary tale to be able to teach the same. The effect is brilliant: Patil thus dips between pithy wisdoms (a simple clay lamp, sitting upon its own shadow, with the caption: “Directly beneath the lamp, darkness.”), strictly dangerous political instructions (“Small fires in a big forest keep flammable matter in check. A periodic purge may prevent a large-scale catastrophe. Useful, where civilization is concerned.”) and even artist’s notes (on the Sudarshan Chakra: “best shown as a jagged flying disc or as a mathematical sequence or as a moustached minor divinity armed to the teeth? Is Krishn best shown as a galactic nursery? Or a dirt-eating blue baby? Or a dark, bejeweled androgyne? Is devlok – antithesis of dense, low-frequency matter – best shown as purple-pink mountains or as a blank page? All these diagrams – crude as their executor – are only my attempts at making the Enormous accessible.”).

One of the most profound insights in the book, with its themes of jealousy and self-ignorance, comes from the supporting narrative of Ashwatthama as pyre-dweller. To contextualise his setting, the story of Sati’s feral husband Shiv and her hidebound father Daksha is recounted at the book’s beginning. Deep into the narrative, we are reminded of this auxillary story with a series of self-revealing questions: “To learn a queasy truth, ask yourself this: Who’s the Shiv to your Daksha? Of the worthiest of the worthies, whose name do you refuse to say aloud while a litany of others are mentioned? Who do you hesitate to leave room for in your crowded altar, though their credibility is immaculate? Of the worthiest of worthies who do you give thanks to?”

In fact, philosophy rather than story is Patil’s narrative style, and Sauptik requires some familiarity with the Mahabharata, and it is also recommended that its first volume, Adi Parva, be read beforehand. The epic’s sprawling storyline is illuminated in selected parts, with the text often taking on a sermon-like quality. In all retellings of any epic, elisions speak as much if not more than illuminations. In some cases, prior knowledge is necessary – the conveying of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is rendered in simplest terms – “He knelt in the red dust before Krishn. They had a very quiet conversation.” Similarly, a basic familiarity with Vaishnavite cosmology – and indeed, the epic’s other convolutions too – is a prerequisite, otherwise brief interludes like Bheem’s encounter with his half-brother Hanuman are incomplete, and dangling storylines like how Yudhishthir rescued his siblings from the magic lake of the crane-yaksha are completely baffling.

In other cases, inference rather than expression speaks strongest. A diagram of a hand shows each Pandav as a finger, with Draupadi’s name within the palm – but is she what connects the fingers, or what the fist crowds upon?

The answer is unequivocal in Patil’s telling, in which Draupadi is very much the dark horse protagonist, the one rendered with the most pathos and the least equanimity. Some of the most vivid scenes belong to her. In the court of Hastinapur where the game of loaded dice has shown the polyandrous queen to be no more than property, the author eschews the standard narrative of disrobing and divine intervention for a chilling image: unfurled tongue and disheveled tresses, her eyes cold and not bloodshot, Draupadi is Ma Kali herself, pronouncing her curses and vows. Later, a striking scene is dedicated to the combing of her hair with the blood of not just those who humiliated her, but her father, her twin and her five sons too. Her face is extraordinarily beautiful, lit from within, as a handmaiden performs the sanguineous shampoo,

The story of how Draupadi came to have five husbands – often told as an act of obeisance to their mother who tells them to share everything – is spun neatly here as a tale of female desirousness and agency. The Pandav’s mother Pritha (her name restored to its original one from the popular Kunti) too offers counsel in just terms: “The only consent you must seek is hers. Your marriage needs no other approval.” This cannot protect Draupadi from becoming pillage in the war, or soothe her heart of longing and rejection. In a later sequence, she opines how Arjun takes advantage of a pretense of dignity to seek Subhadra out, and make her co-consort among his various dalliances.

The author’s language is evocative, always didactic, and with elegant turns of phrase – memorably, Bheem and Duryodhan wrestling as students in the akhada are “symmetrical as an inkblot folded in half”.

This is a graphic novel, as much painting as it is prose. It is Patil’s third and she retains mastery of the form. When Draupadi is staked in a game of dice in the court of the enemy, she is menstruating in a room painted blood red, its walls unmistakably vaginal in the frame in which she utters her first and only warning to Dusshasan. Elsewhere, despite the book’s themes of carnage and forest darkness, there is beauty, most notably in scenes of intimacy: Bheem and his true love, the rakshasa Hidimbi, amidst plantains and passionflowers; sleep-dancing gopikas in petal-skirted dervish delight, each with a Krishn of her own; the lushly sexual apsara Tilottama.

Patil’s visual genealogy is a rich one, but to her credit, her references never trip into too-obvious, easy-applause territory. So in a poignant double spread about Draupadi’s forest (one chapter elucidates how each protagonist had one of their own), the text explores her defenselessness, emotional abandonments and the way long-suffering patience lends itself to long-held vengeance – while a naked, aurically-dense figure of her calls to mind a stance seen somewhere in Diego Rivera’s oeuvre. Elsewhere, on the epic’s bloodiest night of carnage, we recognise that the Shiv that Ashwatthama has invoked is reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahakala. We admire the tableau and the artist’s astute subtlety, balancing allusion with lyrical expression, and turn the page.

But the last page turns onto blank dismay. Sauptik opens on “[a] caution, a key: Don’t impose your preconceptions onto the story then claim objectivity.” Ashwatthama, survivor of aeons, offers this buffer against the limitations of time-bound mores, but Patil herself fails to take this guidance. In a spectacularly misguided endnote signed by the author, she writes of how “brahmin” and “rajanya” are “not genetically transmitted states” but purposes. And more risibly still, choices: “You determine your varna. The bucks stops with you. It is as easy and as excruciatingly hard as that.”

Ashwatthama speaking this on a battlefield or a burning ground out of time may have had resonance, but Patil writing this in a caste-ridden society where the best one can do with one’s privilege is to renounce the system, rather than find ways to whitewash it, is disingenuous to say the least.

Ironically, Ashwatthama – son of Dron, perpetrator of caste-based violence – himself says it better. After the Eklavya episode, he first attempts a justification – “Contrary to the current narrative, Eklavya wasn’t punished for being a poor forest boy with super skills. He was punished for a serious error: laying claim to a lineage he had done no ground-time to earn, from a teacher who had explicitly rejected him. Was Dron’s rejection unjust? Arguably.” – then moves into lip service towards radical subversion – “Karn and Eklavya should’ve just rejected elitist lineages, declared themselves to be what they were – swayambhus, self-actualised ones… Ultimate cocking-a-snook at a system that kept them out.” It’s a bizarre endnote to a book of philosophy on the folly of hubris, but almost – in an unpremeditated way – a befitting one.

An edited version appeared in Biblio.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Crows, Caution And True Colours

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When Wendell Berry wrote of “the peace of wild things”, he could not have been thinking of the crow. For the crow, with its blade-like intelligence and its capacity for vendettas, might have longed for the same thing as the only domesticated creature that writes poetry (the human). In the human’s attempts to study the crow, we have learnt that they recognise faces outside their species, and warn one another of inimical elements. They also shower affection and aegis, as they do on Gabi Mann, a little girl in Seattle who feeds them, and to whom they bring gifts of beads and trinkets and objects deemed precious by their intentions.

Chennai is a city of crows, so it is easy to observe them. As they cast shadows on walking paths. As they cascade good luck in the form of shit. As they swoop down on early mornings to eat freshly cooked rice, and some part of us longs to confer on them the names of ancestors. As they keep sentinel silences from near distances, and unlike the needy nuisance of pigeons, never trespass.

In our folktales they innovate and connive, in our mythologies they chauffeur deities of double-edged power, like the righteous Shani, and Dhumavati who rises in smoke. And according to both science and legend, crows are known for their ability to hold a grudge. They don’t forget ill-will done toward them.

Popular wisdom gives grudges a bad rap. Grudge-holders are said to be small-hearted and stuck in the past, while those who “let go” are noble. Those who don’t make it easy for others to keep trampling them are criticised as “being difficult”. But the way we talk about these issues – injury, forgiveness and healing – is all wrong. By diabolising our emotional responses, we actually allow the pain to twist into different sorts of cruelties, towards the self and others.

A grudge doesn’t mean extracting revenge. It doesn’t mean carrying negative emotions. It simply means recognising a person for what they are, instead of making excuses for them. And not forgetting lessons learnt.

A grudge-holder can be unfailingly polite, while also being cold. They can act kindly, without ever re-opening the door. They can even wish well, while simultaneously wishing to keep their distance. It’s not a grudge one truly holds, but a memory. Not a scar, but the concealed weapon of knowledge. It never needs to be used. Bearing it is protection enough.

Various fables about the crow suggest its intense colour is a form of punishment. But in a story belonging to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people, its rainbow feathers are singed due to bravery. The earth is trapped in endless winter, and it travels on behalf of all living things to ask the creator for a solution. The creator imagines fire into being, and the crow is the first to experience it. The crow’s gift, however, is that in times of rain its wet feathers will glisten with their original variegation.

One can carry a grudge the way a crow carries a secret shimmer within. Where you’ve been burnt, a resistance: your true colours, and always, an awareness of theirs.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.